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By Rose Hoban

In a contested vote, a House committee voted to send a bill containing a new e-cigarette tax and new definitions of the devices to the full House floor for a vote.

In a tie vote, 14-14, the House Finance Committee voted down an amendment that would have pulled the e-cigarette language out of the multi-section bill. As the vote was taking place, Rep Suzy Hamilton (D-Wilmington) returned to the room from meeting with lobbyists in the hallway, but was too late to cast her vote in favor of the amendment.

When she asked the committee chair to add her vote, she was told the result would stand.

“The vote has already been taken. I’m sorry,” responded committee co-chair Rep. Mitchell Setzer (R-Catawba). “We’re running out of time.”

As Hamilton spoke to lobbyists after the meeting, she turned to lobbyist Andy Ellen, who was standing nearby, and said sharply, “You made me late and I missed the vote. Now I’m in trouble with my caucus.”

Ellen grimaced.

Rep. Becky Carney (D-Charlotte), who proposed the amendment, also expressed frustration that the new statutory language appeared quickly and moved just as quickly to the full House.

“I just think this is a huge step forward for us without having a full vetted debate on the issue,” she said. “There is a health issue here. This isn’t just air that they are sucking on. There’s a compound in there. The industry does not have to reveal what it is. Is it truly not a derivative of nicotine? What is the chemical in there that will keep people buying?”

Advocates expressed disappointment at the outcome of the vote.

Pam Seamans from the N.C. Alliance for Health said the problems with the bill are twofold. One is that the tax would be the equivalent of 5 cents on a pack of cigarettes, which she said is too low. The other issue is that the bill would redefine e-cigarettes as a “vapor product” and not a “tobacco product.”

“The FDA is in the process of regulating these products as tobacco products, so if North Carolina defines them differently it’ll confuse the issue,” Seamans said. She also said North Carolina would become the only state to define the products differently, a definition tobacco-industry lobbyists have been pushing in multiple states.

The scientific community has been moving to research the effects of e-cigarettes, but the FDA has been slow to regulate the devices, while industry has been quick to promote them. A recent analysis published in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, reports that there’s little data to support e-cigarette proponents’ contention that the devices are safe and helpful in getting smokers to quit.

“The impact we’re most concerned about is that it could exempt [e-cigarettes] from all our smoke-free laws, and we’d have to go back and amend all of them,” said Peg O’Connell, who lobbies for public-health interests. She explained that smoke-free laws in bars, restaurants and many government buildings only apply to products that create smoke.

School systems have wider bans that encompass the use of smokeless tobacco on school property. If e-cigarettes were labeled as vapor products, that could mean that they would have to go back and ban those as well.

“So any 18-year-old high school student could stand in front of the principal and use it, and they wouldn’t have recourse,” O’Connell said.

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